Historical Overview

Gustav Iii Public Domain

The Swedish Academy was founded in 1786 by King Gustav III.

The Academy’s statutes, which Gustav for the most part drew up himself, are largely similar to those of the Académie Française. The principal purpose of the Academy was to ‘develop the purity, vigour and majesty of the Swedish Language’ – that is to say, its clarity, expressiveness and authority. Among its tasks in achieving that goal was to compile a dictionary and a book of grammar. It was moreover charged with organising annual competitions in oratory and poetry on given themes.

Gustav also had a patriotic purpose for the Academy. Every year, a commemorative medal would be struck and a memoir written on a prominent Swede. It would moreover hold its Annual Grand Ceremony on 20 December, the anniversary of the birth of King Gustavus Adolphus.

The motto chosen for the Academy was ‘Talent and Taste’, where ‘Taste’ was intended to indicate a higher level of aesthetic appreciation and judgment.

In the wake of Gustav’s death in 1792, the standing of the Academy deteriorated, and in 1795, it was even suspended for two years on political grounds. The Eighteen nevertheless maintained its position as the nation’s highest authority in literary and linguistic matters.

In the 1810s, the Academy was subjected to fierce attacks from representatives of the new literary movements, and in the following decade, reduced its activities. Nils von Rosenstein, who had served as permanent secretary of the Academy since its foundation, remained in the post even at an advanced age.

It was not until 1834 that the Academy gained the forceful and enterprising leader it so required, when Bernhard von Beskow took over the post of secretary. Over the course of his tenure, the Academy was reinvigorated, and its reputation among the general public improved.

Following von Beskow’s death in 1868, the Academy operated largely without a secretary until 1884, when Carl David af Wirsén took office. By the end of the nineteenth century, Swedish literature had begun to flourish, and several great poets had been elected. But the Academy was not looked upon favourably by the younger generation of writers, and af Wirsén, who wielded great influence within its doors, remained unimpressed by the new literary movements.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Academy, after some initial hesitation, accepted a task that was not part of its remit but which would nevertheless come to take up much of its time and energy: the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Af Wirsén died in 1912 and was succeeded by Erik Axel Karlfeldt, whose tenure as secretary (1913-31) prompted a shake-up and subsequent modernisation of the Academy. Several of the new school of writers were admitted and its first female member elected.

This process continued throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, and the Swedish Academy today exists as a versatile institution that not only nurtures the legacy of the past but also keeps itself abreast of modern-day developments.